The first blast, code-named Able, was a bit of a dud. The bombardier had missed his target. Baker, the second detonation, drove a half mile wide column of water into the sky in less than a second, falling as millions of tons of atomized reef and ocean collapsing back in the lagoon, sinking the 26,000 ton battleship Arkansas, and lifting the stern of the 880 foot Saratoga 43 feet in the air. Harry had his proof.
Meanwhile, 125 miles away, the Bikini islanders waiting patiently on Rongerik, had discovered that the reef fish were poisonous, the island’s coconut trees had been damaged by fire, and there wasn’t enough water. Benign neglect was turning to tragic neglect, and starvation set in. They tapped Uncle Sam on the shoulder. Are we there yet? Unfortunately Uncle Sam had discovered that Baker’s shock wave had released massive amounts of radiation, and saturated the soil of Bikini with cesium 137. The isotope’s half-life was thirty years. No one but the Americans was going home anytime soon. They moved the Bikinians to Kwaj, and let them camp out on a small strip of grass next to the runway. A few months later, they relocated them again, this time to the island of Kili, to a different kind of disaster. Kili was a true island, no coral fringing reef, no protected lagoon, no forested outer islands to fish and hunt, just the big breakers of the Southern Sea crashing up against rocky shores. Fishing was almost impossible. They began to starve again, saved only by an emergency airdrop.
In 1952, the first US hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, vaporized the island of Elugelab in the Enewetak group and, two years later, the Americans detonated another load of happy lucky welcome fun on Bikini. Because they thought that one of the isotopes, lithium 7 was inert, and it wasn’t, the force of the resultant explosion would be underestimated by a factor of four. On March 1, 1954, Bravo blasted into a crimson15-megaton thermonuclear hydrogen fireball almost five miles wide within the first second, seen and felt on Kwaj over 400 kilometers away, the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshimas, and the largest US nuclear detonation in history. Expanding at 330 feet per second, the mushroom cloud was 9 miles high and 7 miles wide within the first minute, and 25 miles high and 62 miles wide, within the first ten. It raised the temperature of lagoon to 99,000 degrees, and vaporized three islands in the atoll. The crater was over a mile wide and 250 feet deep.
Bravo killed every living thing in the air, on land, and in the sea for miles around. The fallout cloud contaminated more than seven thousand square miles of the Pacific, and included some of the inhabited surrounding islands. Three to four hours after the blast, the sixty-four inhabitants of neighboring Rongelap Atoll, watched in wonder as two inches of snow-like ash covered their island. Children played in it. People drank water saturated with it. Their eyes burned, and their arms, and legs and necks swelled. Vomiting and diarrhea followed.
The Americans had not bothered to tell the Rongelapese about the bomb. They also hadn’t informed the crew of the Japanese boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), which had been fishing for tuna in supposedly safe waters. Six months later chief radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died of radiation sickness.
The other fallout came from Project 4.1, the medical study of those Bikini Atoll residents exposed to Bravo’s radiation. After the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration declassified a number of secret documents about the test, which revealed that (1) The military knew that the winds were going to change, and detonated the device anyway, (2) The US had planned beforehand to implement the medical study, an admission of exposure premeditation, (3) It had injected radioactive substances into Rongelap residents and fed them radiation-containing drinks. Despite the adjudication of ‘acceptable fallout,’ the Marshallese, exposed to 4 times the radiation experienced by residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, began to suffer from birth defects, and die from cancer at accelerated rates. By 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as ‘by far the most contaminated place in the world.’